CARS.COM — Hybrid-electric vehicles are a curious creation. Hybrid systems boost the efficiency of the on-board internal combustion engine by augmenting it with a secondary power system: an electric motor and batteries. You're essentially putting two powertrains into one car, adding a lot of weight, complexity and cost in the process. Plug-in hybrids are a little different, with much larger battery packs recharged via land-based plug, and usually enable the vehicle to drive a certain distance on electricity alone. Some are primarily electric cars that have gasoline range-extenders, like the Chevrolet Volt and BMW i3, while others are merely more heavily electrified HEVs, like the Toyota Prius Prime and the Ford Fusion Energi I tested.
The EPA rates the Fusion Energi at the same efficiency as the normal Fusion hybrid: 42 mpg combined when used just as a hybrid. But operate it for a significant time with a fully charged battery and you'll see that mileage jump considerably. The EPA estimates that the Fusion Energi has 19 miles of EV range. But as someone who's driven EVs and PHEVs extensively, I know the ratings for electric range are always conservative. You can get a lot more range out of an electrified vehicle than the window sticker indicates just by taking it easy and driving carefully. I've done it before in three different Chevrolet Volts and a Hyundai Sonata Plug-In Hybrid, and gotten a better idea of just how far you could go on a full charge. Is the Fusion Energi as underrated as other PHEVs' ratings have been?
The Fusion Energi is essentially a Fusion Hybrid with a much larger battery pack, a 7.6 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion unit versus the normal Hybrid model's 1.4 kilowatt-hour pack. Equipped with this unit, the Energi can spend a lot more time in electric-only mode, selectable by a button on the center console. As long as the vehicle deems it appropriate to do so, it'll keep you in EV mode even if you go hard on the accelerator. According to Ford, it will engage the engine if it thinks it's necessary for "optimum performance" — usually right when first started — and it limits your speed to 85 mph in EV-only mode, which shouldn't be a problem on American highways. Go above that and the 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine kicks in to help provide power and energy.
I gassed up the Fusion Energi to fill its tank, charged it up overnight on my home 240-volt charger and pointed it east to a barbecue joint in Dearborn, Mich., about 25 miles away. The route I use is a mix of hilly, urban stop-and-go traffic through downtown Ann Arbor, Mich., and flatter, higher-speed, four-lane divided highway east of town. The air conditioning is off, but one window is slightly cracked for ventilation. The temperatures were perfect, in the mid-60s with low humidity and partly cloudy skies.
Driving the Fusion Energi is fairly uneventful. It's quiet, like a typical electric vehicle. It has smooth EV-style acceleration and is nearly silent at speed since the engine isn't running. It also has fairly numb steering and brakes that seem a bit late to engage due to the car's considerable heft; it weighs 3,913 pounds, roughly 480 pounds more than a conventional gas Fusion. Push the "L" button on the new-for-2017 rotary shift knob and the regenerative brakes get more aggressive, slowing the sedan more forcefully as the electric motor is reversed and turned into a generator.
In my test, the Fusion Energi made it 29.0 miles before the engine kicked in, 10 miles beyond the Energi's EPA-rated range. That's not a bad performance for a car with a battery that's not all that big — the Sonata PHEV's larger 9.8-kilowatt-hour battery enabled it to go 37.7 miles and, if you pop into the latest Chevy Volt, the 18.4-kilowatt-hour battery will get you 67.5 miles if you drive it right.
Still, 29 miles from the Fusion is more than respectable — and interestingly, it continued to operate in electric mode even though the battery read as depleted. The Fusion Energi's engine served more to keep a certain low state of charge in the batteries to enable a heavily electric operation instead of relying more on the gas engine for direct propulsion power, which is a more efficient method of operation. Combined with the Fusion's top-notch Sync 3 multimedia system, spacious interior and distinctive good looks, the Energi seems to be an interesting option for people who can plug in for their daily commute.